“Base matter is external and foreign to ideal human aspirations, and it refuses to allow itself to be reduced to the great ontological machines resulting from these aspirations.” 1
I don’t know whether now or later on is a good time to introduce the whole Blackness thing. Maybe here we can start with the fact that, like most things I write or make, this idea of a Black Bataille began as a private joke with myself. There was, broadly, a vibe. Bataille’s constant tracing of an outside, an affinity for the low, the lumpen, and the inhuman. And a great suspicion of all the Proper systems of thought and exchange.
Bataille’s own descriptions of base matter resonate strongly with descriptions of Blackness from recent developments in Afropessimist theory, and from a long tradition of Black radical thought that questions liberal humanism’s sufficiency for describing the seemingly human life of Black slaves in the new world. This line of thinking figures the structural position of the Black as outside of but originary to civil society, a necessary sacrifice for “whiteness to gain coherence.” Frank Wilderson writes that “the death of the Black body is foundational to the life of American civil society (just as foundational as it is to the drama of value — wage slavery).” 2
There are several parallels to examine here. One, Wilderson and the rest of the Afropessimists’ structural analysis of Blackness as this necessarily outside position that at the same time upholds the structure is nearly identical to Bataille’s outlining of base matter. In the most-cited passage in “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” Bataille deems base matter “foreign to ideal human aspiration,” and characterizes its operation as a resistance to the “ontological machines'' that reach toward these aspirations. This little clipping alone speaks volumes. As well, in a more explicitly political dimension, the position of the Black in civil society (“socially dead” to follow Nahum Chandler’s reading of Orlando Patterson) tracks with Bataille’s concept of “nonproductive expenditure.” 3 This process or category of activity maintains the functions of our society by relegating certain segments—for him: the poor—to a state of abjection, an ongoing and unrelenting program of loss. Elsewhere, we might call this process dispossession—a go to word in Afropessimist circles within Black studies used to describe the condition of Blackness. To put a fine point on the theoretical overlap between the two: In “Notion of Expenditure” Bataille writes: “The rich man consumes the poor man's losses, creating for him a category of degradation and abjection that leads to slavery.” 4
You could accuse me of motivated close reading, which I am certainly not above, and might even make a practice of. However, Bataille himself specifically declares a direct relation between Blackness and his theories. Bataille ends “The Use Value of D.A.F. De Sade” with a sudden and direct turn to the position of the Black within revolutionary activity and his own notion of heterology, “the science of that which is wholly other.” He writes: “Black communities, once liberated from all superstition as from all oppression, represent in relation to heterology, not only the possibility but the necessity of an adequate organization.” He goes on: “It is only starting from a collusion of European scientific theory with Black practice that institutions can develop that will serve as the final outlets for the urges that today require worldwide society’s fiery and bloody Revolution.” 5
In our roundtable on L’informe, which you’ll find in this inaugural issue of November, Bruce Hainley pointed out that one of Bataille’s final books was on the life and work of Edouard Manet. The book spends considerable time on Manet’s Olympia, a painting that has been widely credited as figuring a radical break that launched modernity—its unveiling being the hypest art event in history to that point. The painting was, in Bataille’s words, “the first masterpiece before which the crowd fairly lost all control of itself.” A painting unconcerned with its subject and its audience, indifferent to scandal in every way. Bruce went on to point out that while we can marvel at the painting’s effect of punting art into its modernist era, opening it up to the idea of formalism, if we return to the painting itself, as a picture, we might say: while Olympia’s existence may have made us (or just France?) modern, so did its subjects, in a sort of era-jumping recursive operation. In its depiction of the sex worker, the animal, and the Black woman, the painting seems to suggest that these figures are the modernist scene’s crucial supports and subjects.
This is to say that of course Bataille took great interest in Olympia, as it illustrates the very principle he sought to explicate across his dense body of writing, making visible that which is outside and irrecuperable, yet somehow an integral force in generating and maintaining the coherence of life as we know it. This general notion goes by several different names in his work: heterology, the abject, l’informe (the formless), nonproductive expenditure, and that which concerns us most here: base materialism.
In “Base Materialism and Gnosticism,” Bataille defined base materialism as a framework dependent upon an “active base matter that disrupts the opposition of high and low and destabilizes all foundations.” 6 The concept is foremost a critique of existing materialisms, which, for Bataille, reinstate hierarchies of value and form by privileging the material dimension. Base materialism, instead, maps a third term, which cannot be recuperated into the high/low structure. This concept interlocks with those other Bataillean notions such as abjection, heterology, and l’informe all of which, in different ways, venture to describe the contours of, broadly put, that which is outside but makes the inside, acting as “the origin of the high and remain[ing] to torment the high and bring it back down into the low.” 7
Bataille also writes that “materialism, whatever its scope in the positive order, necessarily is above all the obstinate negation of idealism.” This quote and the one used as an epigraph here are important to take together. As a pair they make a sweeping claim: base matter is “foreign to ideal human aspirations,” ideologically, and therefore resists recuperation into the structures built to “achieve” such aspirations—our philosophical systems, our proper notions of the human, the state, and so forth. But the second quote offers that base materialism, as a frame built from nothing other than the base matter, is the negation of “idealism.” Here, Bataille refers not to the general concept of an “ideal” but to the Idealism of Western philosophy’s own making, which is to say that base materialism antagonizes the very foundation of not only art, but of human life. 8 Being that idealism undergirds all of semiotics and representation, an anti-idealism—specifically a Bataillean anti-idealism in the form of base materialism and l’informe— frustrates the tools and categories that art depends on, such as symbolism, signification, representation, and meaning.
Bataille tells us: “‘I mean a materialism not implying an ontology, not implying that matter is the thing-in-itself.” 9 In other terms, a materialism that does not fetishize the absence of “content,” “image,” “narrative,” or “expression.”
We were excited by the idea of revisiting l’Informe, because one, Bataille is generally worth giving some airtime; his ideas have largely failed to gain traction in their unadulterated form in art theoretical (and art political) discourses, instead being filtered through Julia Kristeva’s writing on abjection and Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois’ take on l’Informe in their 1997 exhibition catalogue Formless: A User’s Guide. Two, Krauss and Bois’ thoughts on l’Informe have gone fairly unexamined in the years since its publication. In reassessing Formless: A User’s Guide, it’s clear that there are a number of problems with the project, but the authors’ desire “to locate operations that brush modernism against the grain” certainly stands as a worthy mandate. 10
Bataille’s work in general, but especially taking his approach to Olympia as a starting point, aims at explicating a counter-modernism rooted in his concept of “base materialism,” or more modestly: at explicating its sheer possibility. As Benjamin Noys has written, base materialism, “demands a re-thinking of the very possibility of materialism rather than the production of a new materialism.” 11 However, Krauss and Bois’ uptake of base materialism and its related concepts somehow fails at this desired operation. Even if we make room for the creative license taken by the project in interpreting Bataille, Formless: A User’s Guide’s failures still add up to a failure of methodology, which undermines its capacities overall. The project is riddled with an unthought idealism incompatible with their interest in l’informe as a (base) materialist aesthetic.
Formless: A User’s Guide illustrates a series of works that primarily just look and feel like they might have to do with the low, the base, the formless, but little case is made for their self-understanding or critical life as objects with a formless logic or base materialistic operation. The book sets up a semantic formless art in advance of its objects’ existence that thematizes a set of formal elements that signify disorder to the writers. 12 For instance, in their discussion of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, which are bestowed the title of formless due to the “self-evidently horizontal mark[s] that pit themselves against the visual formation of the Gestalt.” Similarly, they deem Robert Morris’ later “anti-form” works, and their “disturbing irregularity” exemplary. These works appear to operate under the principles of formlessness only in comparison to other austere and orderly works by artists in their cohort, or in the case of Morris, made by the artist himself at an earlier date. Krauss and Bois write that their pursuit of l’informe is a pursuit of artworks that “insult the very opposition of form and content,” but their method toward this tends to combine form and content by a simple focus on form in works that have already made their negotiation of form into their content—the same critical operation that characterized their existing modernist project and gave us such frameworks for thinking artworks as minimalist. With each analysis, the book reinforces and reproduces its own claim that “the modernist ontology requires an artwork to have a beginning and an end and holds that all apparent disorders are necessarily reabsorbed in the very fact of being bounded.” 13 If modernism is being brushed against the grain, it is done so lightly.
This methodological insufficiency can be solved by returning to Bataille’s own naming of “Black practice” as crucial to the revolutionary activity he’s after—in art and in politics. Going against the grain of modernism requires broadening the scope of analysis. Specifically, its scope must consider aesthetic modernism’s origin—I believe it is safe to say that aesthetic modernism could not and would not have taken shape as it did were it not for Europe’s encounter with Africa. This includes the initial encounter and the birth of the slave trade, the nineteenth and twentieth century broader European encounter with African artifacts, and Europe’s exposure to jazz music within the West. Considering these encounters as the pivot point on which history teeters, recasts the entire modernist project as one of heterological negotiation of the active base matter of Blackness.
Another textual alibi: In “The Destiny of the Informe,” the book’s final chapter, when Krauss discusses possible confusion of the abject and l’informe there is some overlapping language with Black radical thought, a grappling with Bataille’s own political valence. 14 She writes of how heterology produces a “scandal of thought,” giving the text an air of Wilderson’s Afropessimist declaration of the slave’s subjectivity as a scandal itself, and of course recalling Bataille’s reading of Manet’s scandalous offering of Olympia. As well, she invokes “wretchedness,” recalling Fanon, to describe the abject dimension of society.
Bataille’s “Black practice.” If such activity is crucial, we must first ask what exactly this “black practice” is. We find answers—and, in the process can solve for Bataille’s problematic decoupling of practice and thought—in turning to the work of R.A. Judy, another Afropessimism-associated thinker. In his book Sentient Flesh: Thinking in Disorder, Poesis in Black, Judy introduces the concept of “thinking-in-action,” a riff on Du Bois’ “intellect-in-action.” For Judy, “The poiēsis of blackness . . . is process and object. It’s doing what it’s talking about.” 15 “This “poesis formally exhibits what it exposits, change in action in a duration of time.” This amendment points to a possible nature of “Black practice”—elsewhere deemed “Black poetic sociality,” and is connected to a “jurisgenerative tendency” as named by Fred Moten, blackness’ proclivity for making and unmaking its own rules as it produces objects (object is loosely defined here). This sort of “Black practice” performs the operations of Bataille’s l’informe—most often his principle of “alteration”—and exerts a materialist aesthetic rooted in base matter by another name—Blackness.
If this notion of Black practice is crucial to l’informe, base materialism, and its associated principles, and if we can define “Black practice” using Judy’s definition of the poesis of Blackness, we can enter l’informe at a level below its expression as goopy, anti-form, big quote-n-quote “formless” object practices, instead accessing Bataille at an actually structural level—the level at which, I’d imagine, he’d like to be approached. We can search for those objects that are at once themselves and their processes of coming into themselves.
Things that are both process and object themselves are not necessarily hard to find, but it is scary to try to find such objects that don’t limit themselves to the structural operations of minimalism and related tendencies. For instance, leaving the realm of Black practice momentarily, Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making is my own personal ur-process-and-object. Near-perfect tautology, a thing that holds the trace of itself being constituted without performing itself, without falling back on pure improvisation to access the notion of process either. Of course, this box can be the ur-process-as-object partially because its closed loop is one that evades signification, a perfectly proportioned—platonically ideal—wooden cube. It does not point outside of itself.
To me, Morris’ Box marks both the limitation and the possibility of Krauss and Bois’ take on l’Informe. The book doesn’t mention the piece, a choice that again evidences the authors’ unwitting preoccupation with Idealism and its descendants, symbolism, signification, representation. But to examine Box is to linger at the edge of a dominant narrative of modernism and peer off the cliff.
Possibilities: Box is preoccupied with its own conditions of coming into being, but, crucially, it is not a performance of making a box, nor is it simply a box itself, or an installation where the record of its production pairs with its presentation in an expanded sense (let’s say, the sound instead blasting from speakers in a space, or the detritus and tools from its making exhibited alongside the Final Box), the box holds the record of its production inside it (a bit of an illusion here that we could criticize Morris for; hiding the recorder and abandoning some of his own principles). In perpetuity, the box is okay with becoming and being a box. A box around which a viewer can walk and say, “Oh, yes. A box.” In this sense, Morris’ box seems to level that desired “insult [to] the very opposition of form and content.” 16 And importantly, it does so actively and recurringly. Unlike previously hierarchized materialisms, like the materialism of materialist film, for instance, which generally fetishizes its own processes as the “real object,” Morris’ Box likes being a box and knows you will approach it as a box in its moment of presencing as such. Maybe it can only do this because its form is in some way recognizably platonic; we have been trained for centuries to approach a box, especially one made by a straight white man, as simply itself.
At the same time, the box still makes its form its content, struggling to exceed that modernist notion of an “artwork [having] a beginning and an end, and [holding] that all apparent disorders are necessarily reabsorbed in the very fact of being bounded.” 17 It is clean. Morris, predictably chooses an object that does not ask of or inspire more in its viewer, in order to achieve this structural operation. A smart decision, but one that describes the limit of l’informe in the hands of modernists like him, Krauss, Bois, for whom the divide between form and content and between the material and the symbolic remains a navigable one. Moreover, for l’informe’s authors, for the frame with which they approach, and it seems for the artists found within, insulting the difference between form and content is an aim, a challenging project in itself. From another direction, the realm of Black practice, the bleed between the two is more like amniotic fluid, a necessary starting point.
R.A. Judy offers that “there is no moment in which flesh is not already entailed in some sort of semiosis, that it isn’t written upon or written into some order of signification.” 18 This is a strange bind. To elucidate, for those who have not read Judy or the Afropessimists before him, specifically Hortense Spillers, “flesh,” names the register at which the human body is engaged that marks Black existence—”before the “body” there is “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography.” 19 The flesh precedes the body; only when it becomes “body” can it be narrative, become subject properly, or—to be Lacanian about it—enter into language. The Black subject, as flesh, struggles both to enter the scene as “body,” as well as to maintain any form of autonomy as uninscribed flesh-as-material, let's say. To return to Judy, it is always-already “written-upon or written-into.”
Another way of putting this: the Black body enacts and represents to all of culture an ongoing failure in maintaining a separation between the material and the symbolic and between form and content. As Frank Wilderson stated in our interview in November last year, “it mars both of these categories . . . the slave corrupts the Symbolic Order.” He went on:
Blackness mars all that constitutes symbolic beings, precisely because symbolic beings glean their representational capacity from sucking our blood. There are no Blacks in the world, but there is no world without Blacks.
Wilderson, Judy, Spillers, and their cohort provide for us an inverted starting point from which to consider a pursuit such as l’informe, a.k.a. a counter-modernism, a.k.a. the very relationship between form and content, material and ideals. Once again, the description of Blackness and its relation to the world rings eerily like Bataille’s description of base matter. Blackness presents the possibility of a thoroughly anti-Idealist aesthetic and theory of objects.
Certainly, we can scour the Western artistic tradition for objects and practices that have grasped desperately for this territory—and believe me, this is one of my favorite pastimes—but an equally if not more valuable use of time might be to case those objects and practices which, try as they might, cannot seem to escape it.
The thing that limits the Box is, again, that same tendency that limits Krauss and Bois’ whole project: fear of content, hatred or boredom of images but a love of representation and ideals underneath it all. Are there places where artists have pursued and or achieved this very same injury to their enemy categories without the expressive conservatism that minimalism offered us?
Morris’ tautological process-as-object serves as a fulcrum.His accidental almost “poesis of Blackness” is sort of like how you can’t deny that some white musicians have tapped into something, like no one loves that Rick Rubin produced Crunk Juice, but it’s a fact of life and he did that– Morris has got a great view of the abyss, but can’t be said to have traversed it.
David Hammons’ Untitled (dung), 1983–85, might be the first work you encounter when you go spelunking. It’s linked to Morris’ Box through its similarly tautological operation, a mass of elephant dung with an elephant painted on it. Crucially, it is the space around the Elephant that is painted, leaving the Elephant itself to technically be “made” of dung, formed only by negative space. The two objects dance a similar dance of actively cycling the viewer through the object’s process of constitution.
I want to pause to say that I’ve chosen an explicitly scatalogical work here on purpose. In Formless: A User’s Guide, Krauss and Bois decide not to put Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit in the “base materialism” section in order to avoid “the fetishization of excrement.” 20 Krauss and Bois’ choice makes a lot of sense for the time, and a year or two ago, I might have done the same—run away from signification to avoid facing its functioning. However, if we’re in the business of inversions, it seems important to start all the way at the other end, with something that loudly transmits its relationship to the low, such as Untitled (dung).
In the process of this transmission, Hammons does not steer clear of signification or representation. This sets Untitled (dung) apart from a work like Box; it almost awkwardly points outside of itself—nodding perhaps satirically toward a pan-African aesthetic, and toward the artist himself through what is clearly someone’s mark-making. But both external associations point back to the basic process of production—elephant shits, shit sits, man paints shit, which, presumably if considered step by step, one is either tickled or offended by, or both.
It’s not an out-of-left field move to note that this work holds an obvious critique of the valuation applied to an art object, and it certainly bears some conceptual (and material) relation to Manzoni’s piece, which can be said to take interest in value and commodification of the artist and art. However, unlike the Manzoni, Hammons’ Untitled (dung) bounces questions of value, artistic intent, Black diasporic community, and aesthetics against significantly more surfaces—such that the work’s presence and potential for “meaning” (ugh!) becomes refractory and disorderly. These disorders are not “necessarily reabsorbed in the very fact of being bounded.” They are bounded in a rather tight material loop—a sort of admittedly off-kilter mise en abyme–but a structural and conceptual drift occurs as one cycles through said loop.
It might seem like I’ve fucked up and unraveled any connection to Morris’ Box, but I’d argue that the two just slipped closer together. Hammons exhibits a form of literalism in Untitled (dung)—on the one hand, literally, materially presenting shit, calling it shit, reminding us of where the shit came from, all through the mere presentation of this mass. On the other hand, the work is also truly literalist in the sense discussed by Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood,” an accusation specifically leveled at Robert Morris in Fried’s original text. Fried describes this literalist art as, “nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theatre” insofar as “it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work.”
This obsession with presence and the viewer’s implication in completing the work is one thing, but if we borrow from Alain Badiou’s definition of theater as “thinking-in-the-body” or “embodied-thought” and sprinkle it over Fried, we find Morris and Hammons joined once again by the sort of active engagement described by Judy, that “poesis in black” and its fringes, “thinking-in-action.”
Judy’s “thinking-in-action” is also named as “thinking-in-disorder,” which seems important to note considering how obsessed I am with Krauss and Bois’ obsession with “apparent disorders.” Both Morris’ Box and Hammons’ Dung are literalist objects à la Fried’s description, drawing the beholder into their operations, but each presents different forms of disorder. Maybe Morris’ is sheerly temporal—hearing the sound of the box being made as you look at it splits the viewer between time frames; a bit Bergsonian, but chopped, maybe not screwed. With Hammons, the apparent disorder might be ideological or phenomenological; it’s an object that asks you a lot of questions all at once—the most frightening of which might be, who are you?
In “The Use Value of L’informe,” Bois and Krauss write, “Bataille wrote of Manet: “To break up the subject and re-establish it on a different basis is not to neglect the subject; so, it is in a sacrifice, which takes liberties with the victim, and even kills it, but cannot be said to neglect it.” Like Box and Dung—objects that take you apart and put you back together while you do the same to them.
This essay doesn’t suggest that all Black art holds l’informe and other Bataillean concepts closely. It’s a bit depressing to have to admit that, because on the other side of that doorway lies the hard truth that many Black artistic practices either consciously or unconsciously participate in the project of liberal humanism that will always, always, always “suck their blood,” to use Wilderson’s phrase and leave them bleeding out. This is no one’s fault, and in a way, I hope that wedging this Bataille thing into Black art discourse, and into general art theory anew, might inspire other Black artists and scholars to reassess our practices–—and everyone else to pursue an absolutely counter-modernism and all its hypothetical counter-legacies from a true and decisive limit point—to find, draw out, and magnify those lurking base materialistic elements in order to extend and strengthen a notion of Black art that luxuriates in its outside-the-world-ness.